By: McKenna Graham, Assistant Arts & Life Editor
If you’ve walked past Susquehanna Terrace at just the right time these past few weeks, you’ve seen the rehearsals of a hard-at-work cast hat culminated April 21 and 22 in performances of the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Actors Anonymous put their all into the story of sixth graders competing in a county-wide spelling bee, directed by sophomore acting major Madelyn Dominiski.
Written by Rachel Sheinkin and put to music by William Finn, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” focuses on five sixth-graders who have made it, one way or another, to the countywide bee. Sophomore Kasie Lerner’s take on Olive Ostrovsky is young, sweet and quiet, while Zach Taylor’s rendition of William Barfee (pronounced bar-FAY) is appropriately arrogant and insecure. Along with Olive and William are spellers Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Molly Mendelson), Leaf Coneybear (Joe Owens), Chip Tolentino (Eric Panuela) and Marcy Park (Jenny Yarmis), each with their own personal struggles, uncertainties and optimism.
“It comes off as a very simple show,” Lerner said. “But if you really listen to the kids’ – and even the adults’ – stories, they have so much to say about things that affect everyone.”
The six main spellers were joined by audience members who had volunteered and then been chosen at random to participate in the bee. Each time someone was eliminated, the cast would sing exaggerated good-byes or even dance the person away.
Alumnus acting major James Ruth said being pulled up onstage made him a little uncomfortable at first.
“Because I didn’t know how much they wanted me to be there, as a presence on stage, but then they start interacting with you and they start improv-ing little conversations on the sidelines, and you really feel like, ‘Oh, I’m one of the kids, too,’” Ruth said.
Also present onstage was a counselor for eliminated or disqualified participants, badass parolee Trish Mahoney (Taylor Wach), former Bee winner and now judge Rona Lisa Perretti (Caitlin Wilson), and questionably-qualified judge Douglas Panch (Brandon Reichert). Despite the show’s focus on the kids, these three made their presences known with encouraging comments and sharp asides.
“I loved it!” audience member and Towson High School student Cristy Hall said. “I was laughing the entire time… it’s now one of my favorite shows. I’m going to go home and listen to the soundtrack on repeat.”
It was the directorial debut of Dominiski and president of Actors Anonymous Rebecca Altschul couldn’t be prouder.
“She has blown everyone away,” junior family and human services major Altschul said. “She’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and she built something from the ground up.”
Owens’ character, Leaf, was a crowd favorite, heralded as “the light of the show” by Lerner and praised for having “this beautiful childlike innocence” according to Taylor.
“What I was going for was just, look at the innocence of these children, with these really really great ideas,” Dominiski said, before expressing her hope that audience members “leave feeling a little more compassionate towards your fellow man.”
For Taylor, the show was all about overcoming adversity and discovering what truly matters.
“You’re going to experience hardship throughout your life,” Taylor said. “And you’re going to run into a cast of characters, and you’re going to have to realize that there’s so much more underneath than just surface-level… in losing, you can also win, by finding a piece of yourself.”
Actors Anonymous had mere months to put on this show, and because it’s not-for-profit and not affiliated with the theatre department, the musical was all student-run and student-produced.
“To see them put on such quality work on such a time and budget constraint is really delightful,” Ruth said. “This group has grown into something that’s really worth seeing.”
Dominiski points out stage manager Tessa Beblo and music director Joe Nicol as huge collaborators in the process.
“They brought a life to the cast that I didn’t even know I needed until I saw it,” Dominiski said. “Having two, not just really smart people but really good people, can impact a production a lot.”
Dominiski emphasized how important that “good” part was to her.
“People are very quick to judge, and I want people to leave with the idea that you don’t have to be so quick to judge,” she said. “You don’t have to talk down to somebody. A child can be smart, somebody that you don’t expect can be a winner, and we can treat each other with kindness and fairness. I want people to leave feeling a little more child-like.”
The show screams child-like even in the strategies the characters employ to spell – Bee rules dictate that you cannot take back any letters you say aloud, so Olive speaks them into her hand before turning to the microphone. Logainne traces the letters on her forearm. William uses the renowned “magic foot” technique to spell the word across the floor with his foot.
“Molly Mendelson – she’s playing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre – always has this way of keeping people grounded,” Lerner said. “Even though she’s kind of quieter, she really keeps everyone, from the cast to the director, grounded… I think her voice was a little underappreciated. She really kept people going.”
“Tessa, as a stage manager, does… I don’t even know what she does, which is great because she’s the glue that holds the fort together,” Taylor said. “She does way more than I think we even realize, so God bless you, Tessa, if you’re reading this.”
It was definitely an offstage experience as well as an onstage experience for Lerner.
“This has shown me that I am worth it, and everyone else in the cast is worth it, and is enough,” she said. “Even though it’s not a mainstage show, it’s still just as great.”
Altschul considered the performance a roaring success.
“This definitely fulfills my vision for Actors Anonymous,” she said. “This is exactly what I want AA to be.”